By Matt Field, December 17, 2021
In South Africa and the United Kingdom, where the new omicron variant is contributing to record numbers of COVID-19 infections, trend lines began climbing precipitously a few weeks ago, particularly in the former country, where the charts show cases rising in not so much of a slope as a vertical line. This is a warning that the world could be in for a previously unimaginable tsunami of cases once omicron really gets going.
In some places, however, it can be hard to detect much preparation for what’s coming.
On the one hand, some businesses and schools are cancelling events, delaying plans to return to the office, and moving classes online. On the other, some combination of factors—including messaging around omicron’s potential mildness, pandemic fatigue, and confidence in COVID vaccines—is leading many in the United States to swallow their fears and leap into holiday and in-person life.
That decision is one that, in the aggregate, will likely prove costly.
Confident that COVID-19 vaccines can withstand the omicron onslaught, federal officials in the United States appear intent on having the country trudge forward. “We’re not going to shut down our economy in any way,” White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients told a press briefing earlier this week. “We’re going to keep our schools and our businesses open.” White House Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci showed media recent findings that a booster dose of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine substantially restored neutralizing antibodies against omicron and brought vaccine efficacy against symptomatic disease up to 75 percent. The advisor doesn’t see a need for an omicron specific vaccine. “If you’re vaccinated and your family’s vaccinated, you can enjoy nice Christmas dinners and holidays,” he told Axios.
Some reports suggest the omicron virus could be milder than previous strains. In South Africa, where omicron was first reported, cases have shot up since the variant wave began. But despite record infections, just two percent of cases led to hospitalizations during the second week of the wave, compared to 19 percent during the second week of a delta wave.
As numerous commentators have pointed out, though, even if omicron is inherently mild—or, if due to high rates of prior infection and vaccination, people generally have more immunity to the COVID-19—even a small fraction of a huge number is a big number. Omicron will probably send a lot of people to the hospital; inevitably, some will die. And omicron is spreading fast. The United Kingdom reported more than 88,000 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a 31 percent leap from the week before. The number of omicron infections is doubling in less than two days in England, according to a Guardian review of government data on omicron cases.
The new variant, with its mixed signals, has made the decision to share the same physical space with other people fraught once again, and in some areas of life, people, businesses, and schools are pulling back on in-person interaction. At Stanford University, for example, classes will be online once they resume after winter break.
But according to an Axios/Ipsos survey published on December 14, 72 percent of Americans plan to see family and friends from outside their households over the holidays. At the same time, the poll showed a marked increase since late November in the percentage of people who thought gathering with people outside their homes, resuming pre-COVID-19 activities, or flying posed a moderate or major risk.
With a pandemic-weary public plowing forward and officials from the Biden administration as well as in state governments leaning heavily on vaccination to see the country through, a big omicron wave seems inevitable. “I’ve spoken to a few different governors over the last week, and there’s very, very little appetite for doing much at this point, which I think may end up being really costly,” Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s public health school, told The Washington Post.
So far, data are showing that three doses of an mRNA vaccine can forestall the worst effects of omicron, but imperfect protection—combined with the fact that 40 percent of the US population is not fully vaccinated, let alone boosted—means the transmissible variant will likely cause a lot of pain and suffering in the weeks to come. For whatever reason, that’s a warning that doesn’t seem to be resonating.
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